Podemos, politics & utopia

Sirio Canos Donnay

Monday, 21 September 2015

If I have to be honest, I’ve never been too keen on utopias. I don’t understand them: they’re too big, too abstract, too flawless for me, not something I can relate to. This doesn’t mean I don’t believe in a better world, on the contrary: for as long as I can remember I’ve always been fighting or campaigning for one thing or other. But these were all projects that recognised the world for what it was, with its good stuff and its limitations, and worked with those ingredients to build something better. This has nothing to do with aiming small; when it comes to improving society, you can dream small or big: what matters is taking those dreams seriously.

Despite all of this campaigning, the one thing I never thought I’d do was to join a political party. Yet  here I am, speaking as a member of one, so I’d like to explain how that happened. Since 2011, we’ve been having major social movements in Spain. It started with the occupation of the squares by the Indignados, which polls showed were backed by over 70% of the population. These were followed by an explosion of social movements:  from neighbours preventing families from being evicted by banks, to doctors that locked themselves in hospitals to avoid their privatisation; everybody seemed to be on the streets and fighting for a better society. Yet later that year, we had elections and the conservatives, which had been the party spear-heading the cuts as well as the one with most corruption scandals, won the election with absolute majority.

You can probably imagine how frustrating this was. And yet, when you thought about it, it actually made sense: the reason why the outrage in the streets wasn’t finding a translation into the ballot boxes was simply because it had nothing it could get translated into. The two main parties completely ignored what was happening in the streets, and the smaller ones were generally too busy fighting amongst themselves as to reach anybody who wasn’t already on their side.  This victory of the conservatives, and the devastating cuts and policies that followed, taught us two key lessons: first, that it didn’t matter how much we shouted from below if there wasn’t anybody at the top willing to listen. This is not to say social movements are not important. They are crucial, but they are not enough. Second, that we weren’t living in a democracy. Because there can be no democracy if institutional politics can entirely ignore society and get away with it. There can be no democracy if all the important decisions are already taken before even cast our vote, and all we get to choose is the face that will impose austerity. Yes, we still got to vote every few years, but in practice our institutions had been hijacked by a privileged minority, and our politicians had become butlers of the rich and wealthy, instead of messengers of the people.

It thus became clear that in order to redress this situation, social movements weren’t enough: we needed a political tool capable of using the bits of democracy we had left to take back the institutions and place them at the service of ordinary people. A tool that took democracy, transparency and participation so seriously that made them fundamental pillars of its very structure, but that at the same time was effective enough to fight in a very tilted terrain, where most of the resources and the power were on the enemy’s side.  And that’s what Podemos was born to be.

Three months after its creation, and with an entirely crowd-funded budget, Podemos obtained 5 MEPs in the European elections. It has since tripled that amount of support in the regional elections, and participated in citizen platforms that are now governing the councils in many of Spain’s towns, including Barcelona and Madrid. Councils which are showing how another type of politics is possible, that it’s not true that there isn’t an alternative. In two months, they’ve stopped thousands of evictions, they’ve launched platforms for citizen initiatives to get council backing, they’ve made sure all children had access to two meals a day despite the schools being closed, and started municipal debt audits, among many other things. And all of that, while actually saving money by being efficient and renouncing to some of the outrageous privileges previous councils had. The new politics has thus already arrived at the local and regional level. Now we’re hoping to extend that change that to the national one in the December elections.

Most importantly, Spain is not isolated in this wave of change. Across Europe, people are reclaiming democracy and demanding a new type of politics that does something as simple as putting people’s wellbeing first  I see this in Scotland with all the movements associated to the referendum, and now also in the rest of the UK with the Corbyn phenomenon, and the great excitement and hope it’s triggered. I see it as well in Greece, where twice in a year people chose to  put democracy before fear. And yes, they lost, but think about this: if Greece, a tiny country economically speaking (not even 2% of Europe’s GDP), managed to create such an earthquake, forcing the European elites to drop any pretence of caring for democracy and human rights,  imagine what a medium-sized economy like Spain or a large one like UK could do.

So while I don’t believe in utopias, I am extremely excited about the next few years. Because I see people in Spain, and across Europe realising that this idea that there is no alternative is nonsense, that another Europe is not just possible but necessary, and in fact already emerging from the bottom up.  And that to me, is far more  exciting that any utopia will ever be. 

 

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